The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson, on the Smithsonian Magazine website, is a really depressing piece. It documents convincingly that in the years after the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson changed from an opponent of slavery to an upholder of the system.
Some people will use this article to attack the ideas in the Declaration of Independence, but nothing he did can detract from that document. The history raises troubling questions, though, about how someone can proclaim an ideal so eloquently and then betray it. I’m reminded of these lines from Atlas Shrugged:
Whenever you committed the evil of refusing to think and see, of exempting from the absolute of reality some one small wish of yours, whenever you choose to say: Let me withdraw from the judgment of reason the cookies I stole, or the existence of God, let me have my one irrational whim and I will be a man of reason about all else — that was the act of subverting your consciousness, the act of corrupting your mind.
It’s particularly dangerous when people’s actions conflict with their principles — or perhaps better put, when the principles they act on conflict with the ones they declare. People don’t like to be hypocrites, so they have to change either their ideas or their actions. Nothing says a priori that it’s their ideas they should stick to; lots of people have horrible political or religious ideas but are quite decent in daily life (at least within their tribe). Either way, though, the contradictions people hold weaken and may corrupt them. They may resolve them for the better or the worse. Too often, they compromise their principles one small step at a time in order to excuse what they’re doing.
Where does this leave us as admirers of Jefferson? We can still greatly honor the Jefferson of 1776, the author of the Declaration of Independence, the eloquent defender of freedom. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that his later actions betrayed his earlier ideals and not excuse them. Complete integrity in people is sadly rare.